NORMAN — A safe room in every school? In the aftermath of the May 20 tornado, many state officials were saying it couldn’t be done. Albert Ashwood wasn’t among them.
Ashwood is director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, a small state agency with a big responsibility: Since he took over in 1997, OEM has coordinated the state and federal response to 37 tornadoes, floods, wild fires, ice storms and other calamities deemed worthy of a presidential disaster declaration.
Now Ashwood is helping pick up the pieces from the deadly May 19, May 20 and May 31 tornadoes, which killed at least 46 people in Oklahoma. Seven were children at Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School, which had no safe room. It is one of hundreds of Oklahoma schools lacking adequate storm shelters.
In an interview with Oklahoma Watch’s Warren Vieth, Ashwood describes how Oklahoma could take the lead in developing a model program to put safe rooms in every school. He also explains why Oklahoma homeowners should take responsibility for their own tornado precautions. The interview has been edited and condensed.
A native of Muskogee and current resident of Chandler, Ashwood ended a newspaper career to become an OEM public information officer in 1988. He was appointed director by a Republican governor, reappointed by a Democrat, and appointed again by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin in 2011. He is the longest-serving state emergency management chief in the country.
Q: What particular lessons did we learn from this last round of storms?
A: We learn things from every disaster. Anytime you have an EF5 tornado, that puts you into the 1 percentile or 2 percentile of tornadoes. A lot of things that we’ve talked about — sheltering in place, making sure you have tornado precautions — sometimes don’t even apply to a storm that size.
Q: Are there any specific legislative or policy changes that need to be made?